The first military spouse coworking space at the Fort Belvoir USO Warrior and Family Center, Va., is now open for visitors. The coworking space program was designed to provide spouses a comfortable and professional workspace outside their homes and a training venue for employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. (Spc. Giselle Gonzalez)

By Devon L. Suits, Army News Service

Anna Nordley struggled to focus on an important phone call while she sat at her desk, inconveniently positioned next to the kitchen counter. As an Army spouse and senior accounting manager for the USO, she tried to keep her phone muted to avoid the noisy clatter of the microwave and dishwasher running nearby.

Nordley also painfully ignored the cries of her infant son as her mother tended to the upset child in a different room, she said. At the same time, she could overhear her husband and Army Criminal Investigation Command agent Andrew Nordley, as he led two housing inspectors throughout their home on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

"That is the kitchen work life," she said with a slight laugh. "There have been times when my husband or my mom get caught on camera during a work video conference. Any noise that could happen tends to occur during my meetings with the worst possible timing."

Nordley needed a change to improve her mental state as she scrambled to an alternative work location, she said during an interview last week.

"I think my coworkers understand that we are all kind of in the same situation, but it does affect my confidence at work," Nordley said, commenting on all the in-home distractions.

Instead of focusing on her job, Nordley may now worry about her surroundings, which often impact her train of thought.

"I'm thinking, 'I hope they realize that I'm not unprepared -- I am just in this chaos,'" she said. "It affects me internally how I perceive myself as a professional."

Nordley considered visiting a local coffee shop to get some work done, but operating and capacity restrictions caused by COVID-19 limited her options, she said.

She eventually learned about a new military spouse coworking space under development at the Fort Belvoir USO Warrior and Family Center, which later opened in March.

"I first heard about the space from social media [in November]. I was already desperate to get out of the house," Nordley said.

Military spouse coworking space

Like Nordley's situation, Emily Graves was also looking for an alternative work location after she relocated from Iowa with her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Craig Graves, an operations and training officer with the National Guard.

"We just moved to the area in November," she said. "Moving during the pandemic was kind of tricky, and we had never lived on post before."

The coworking space program was designed to provide military spouses a comfortable and professional workspace outside their homes and a training venue for employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.

The Army Quality of Life Task Force’s support for the spaces is just one way the Army is trying to improve the quality of life of families, said Lt. Col. Keith Wilson, a Soldier for Life Program regional director, during a recent interview.

The Army looks to establish five total spaces on Army installations this fiscal year after it recently opened ones at Fort Belvoir and Fort Knox, Kentucky, Wilson said. Other locations under consideration include Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Drum, New York; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and West Point, New York.

Wilson added that public-private partnerships with the USO and other organizations are vital to the program's success, as many of these partnerships will provide additional entrepreneurial and remote work training and expertise.

As the marketing communications director for an Iowa-based economic development group, Graves jumped on the opportunity to utilize the new space at Fort Belvoir as it gave her a welcome break from home, she said.

"I prefer working outside the house and not in an office," Graves said. "My energy and creativity are higher, because I feel more inspired being out and around other people."

The Fort Belvoir site offers internet access, printing capabilities, and adequate workspace and seating, along with a range of individual and group work areas and a larger conference room for meetings and events.

"It is a comfortable space. The desk is more comfortable than being at home, the chairs are nice, and the outdoor space is beautiful," she said. "This time of year, I have a lot of intense projects. It has been nice to come here a couple of days during the week, as it helps me think of new ideas."

The coworking space also provides a sense of community and a chance to develop friendships in a professional setting, Graves added.

"Military spouses are always trying to make it work," she said. "The coworking space is just one more opportunity for us to support each other and grow in our careers."

Simple joy of going to work

Nordley recalled the sense of relief she felt as she got in her car to go to the USO that first day.

"From the moment I left the house, I was like 'I have a commute [and] I can listen to the radio again,'" she said with a smile.

She soon noticed an increase in her work productivity as she scheduled future visits to complete more complex projects, she said. Without a constant wave of interruptions, she could finish her work in just half the time it would take to complete while at home.

"Now I get to see the familiar friendly faces in the morning. If I feel lonely, I can come downstairs to grab a coffee, get some snacks, and chat with somebody," Nordley said. "These are just some of the bright moments throughout my day to make the new normal feel more normalized."

Overall, the Army's shift to include coworking spaces is a positive step in the right direction, Nordley said. Military spouses are more than just homemakers or parents.

"It has been my perception that a spouse's career takes a backseat," she said. "Spouses have careers and want help [with] with their jobs. I would love more steps in this direction.

"The coworking space is our space that we can help shape and use to our benefit. I definitely would encourage everybody to try it out, wherever it is available.”